In a year, a single law has decimated human rights in Hong Kong

The national security law has spread fear among Hong Kong residents, stifling critical voices.

Agnes Chow, Anthony Wong Yiu Ming, Tiffany Yuen Ka-wai, Denise Ho Wan See, Lester Shum, Eddie Chu, Joshua Wong and Gregory Wong pose for photo at a campaigning during primary elections aimed at selecting pro-democracy candidates, in Hong Kong on July 11, 2020 [File: Reuters/Tyrone Siu]

Local buses, recycling bins and leafletting were among Tiffany Yuen’s main responsibilities as an elected official when she was arrested for violating Hong Kong’s national security law and sent to jail.

Absurd as it may sound, it is a fact that encapsulates the rapid decay of human rights in the city since a single piece of legislation was enacted one year ago today.

In the 12 months since it was imposed by the Chinese government, the national security law has been used as a pretext to stifle – and ultimately obliterate – voices critical of the Hong Kong or Beijing authorities.

Tiffany Yuen is merely one of the law’s victims. An unassuming local politician with a background of promoting LGBTQI and women’s rights, in February she said goodbye to her family and friends and was placed in a correctional institution.

She remains there now, one of 47 people charged with “conspiracy to subvert state power” for taking part in unofficial “primaries” intended to narrow the list of pro-democracy candidates for a 2020 territory-wide election that never happened. Most were denied bail after a four-day mass hearing in which one defendant fainted from exhaustion, and the last vestiges of Hong Kong’s once-heralded freedoms appeared to disintegrate with each gruelling minute.

Yuen’s ongoing detention is made possible by the national security law itself, which effectively stipulates that suspects should be refused bail unless they can prove they will not “continue to commit acts endangering national security”.

In other words, they are presumed guilty rather than innocent. The result is that people targeted under the national security law face Chinese-style imprisonment – being jailed before they are convicted.

And while Yuen is one of 118 people who have been arrested so far in relation to the law, many more have been intimidated, harassed, and ultimately forced into silence in an assault that has changed the face of Hong Kong society.

Last week’s closure of Apple Daily, entrepreneur Jimmy Lai’s outspoken pro-democracy newspaper, is a flagrant attack on press freedom that is emblematic of a broader crackdown permeating the city’s every pore.

In the past year, students have deleted their social media accounts; restaurants have pulled down protest posters; thousands have made the heart-wrenching decision to emigrate. Many share the same fear: being deemed a threat to national security and the potentially lengthy prison sentence that comes with it.

This is because the arbitrary application of the national security law, together with the imprecise definitions of its so-called crimes, prevent anyone from knowing how and when they might transgress it.

While violations are broadly sorted into four categories – “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism”, and “collusion with foreign forces” – the potential to fall foul of the law is virtually infinite.

People have been arrested for the content of their tweets or the slogans on their T-shirts and mobile phone stickers. One former opposition lawmaker’s WhatsApp chats with journalists were cited as evidence against her.

As the space for freedom of expression continues to fade away, teachers have lost their licences for promoting class discussions on subjects such as independence for Hong Kong. Books critical of China and Hong Kong have been pulled from public libraries. Children have been warned not to express political opinions at school.

With only a diminished rule of law to protect them, Hong Kong’s dissenting voices appeal to the international community for support. It is down to world leaders across the regional board to compel the Chinese authorities to confront this assault on human rights, either in bilateral or multilateral arenas such as the United Nations Human Rights Council.

In one of the most poignant moments of the past 12 months, the revered former lawmaker Margaret Ng, who received a suspended sentence for taking part in a peaceful protest in 2019, told the court during her mitigation plea: “There is no right so precious to the people of Hong Kong as the freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly.”

And while Hong Kong’s human rights safeguards may have been blunted by the national security law, the will of its people has not. When authorities again banned the city’s annual Tiananmen crackdown vigil earlier this month – ostensibly on COVID-19 grounds – and deployed thousands of police to handle an event that has passed by peacefully for 30 years, large numbers still took to the streets to light candles for those killed in Beijing on June 4, 1989. If they stopped remembering, who else would?

As Apple Daily stared into the abyss, people flocked to newsstands to buy up every copy of the paper they could.

Faced with previously unimaginable levels of government repression, Hongkongers will adapt as they find other ways to express themselves. Tiffany Yuen, who has continued to design leaflets for her community while in detention, is just one of them.

A new Amnesty International report on Hong Kong, ‘In the name of National Security’, is published today.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.